Freedom And Empire


The U.S.A. and the Soviet Union seem destined to play a vital part in the future. They differ from each other almost as much as any two advanced countries can differ and even their faults lie in opposite directions. All the evils of a purely political democracy are evident in the U.S.A.; the evils of the lack of political democracy are present in the U.S.S.R. And yet they have much in common—a dynamic outlook and vast resources, a social fluidity, an absence of a medieval background, a faith in science and its applications, and widespread education and opportunities for the people. In America, in spite of vast differences in income, there are no fixed classes as in most countries and there is a sense of equality. In Russia, the outstanding event of the past twenty years has been the tremendous educational and cultural achievements of the masses. Thus in both countries the essential basis for a progressive, democratic society is present, for no such society can be based on the rule of a small intellectual elite over an ignorant and apathetic people. Nor can such an elite long continue to dominate over an educationally and culturally advanced people.

A hundred years ago de Tocqueville, discussing the Americans Of those days, said:

If the democratic principle does not, on the one hand, induce men to cultivate science for its own sake, on the other, it does enormously increase the number of those who do cultivate it … Permanent inequality of conditions leads men to confine themselves to the arrogant and sterile researches of abstract truths, whilst the social condition and institutions of democracy prepare them to seek the immediate and useful practical results of the sciences. The tendency is natural and inevitable.

Since then America has developed and changed and become an amalgam of many races, but its essential characteristics continue.

Yet another common characteristic of both Americans and Russians is that they do not carry that heavy burden of the past which has oppressed Asia and Europe, and conditioned to a great extent their activities and conflicts. They cannot, of course, escape, as none of us can, the terrible burden of this generation. But they have a clearer past, so far as other people are concerned, and are less encumbered for their journey into the future.

As a result of this they can approach other peoples without that background of mutual distrust which always accompanies the contacts of well-established imperialist nations with others. Not that their past is free of spots and stains and suspicions. Americans have their negro problem which is a continuing reproach to their professions of democracy and equality. Russians have yet to wipe out memories of past hatreds in eastern Europe and the present war is adding to them. Still Americans make friends easily in other countries. Russians are almost totally devoid of racialism.

Most of the European nations are full of mutual hatreds and past conflicts and injustices. The imperialist powers have inevitably added to this the intense dislike for them of people over whom they have ruled. Because of England’s long record of imperialist rule, her burden is the greatest. Because of this, or because of racial characteristics, Englishmen are reserved and exclusive and do not easily make friends with others. They are unfortunately judged abroad by their official representatives who are seldom the standard-bearers of their liberalism or culture, and who often combine snobbery with an apparent piety. These officials have a peculiar knack of antagonising others. Some months ago a secretary to the Government of India wrote an official letter to Mr. Gandhi (in detention) which was an example of studied insolence, and which was looked upon by large numbers of people as a deliberate insult to the Indian people. For Gandhi happens to be a symbol of India.

Another era of imperialism, or an age of international co-operation or world commonwealth, which is it going to be in the future? The scales incline towards the former and the old arguments are repeated but not with the old candour. The moral urges of mankind and its sacrifices are used for base ends, and rulers exploit the goodness and nobility of man for evil purposes and take advantage of the fears, hatreds, and false ambitions of the people. They used to be more frank about empire in the old days. Speaking of the Athenian empire, Thucydides wrote: ‘We make no fine profession of having a right to our empire because we overthrew the Barbarian single-handed, or because we risked our existence for the sake of our dependents and of civilization. States, like men, cannot be blamed for providing for their proper safety. If we are now here in Sicily, it is in the interest of our own security…. It is fear that forces us to cling to our empire in Greece, and it is fear that drives us hither, with the help of our friends, to order matters in Sicily.’ And again when he referred to the tribute of the Athenian colonies: ‘It may seem wickedness to have won it; but it is certainly folly to let it go.’

The history of Athens is full of lessons of the incompatibility of democracy with empire, of the tyranny of a democratic state over its colonies, and the swift deterioration and fall of that empire. No upholder of freedom and empire today could state his case so well and so eloquently as Thucydides did:

We are the leaders of civilization, the pioneers of the human race. Our society and intercourse is the highest blessing man can confer. To be within the circle of our influence is not dependence but a privilege. Not all the wealth of the east can repay the riches we bestow. So we can work on cheerfully, using the means and the money that flow into us, confident that, try as they will, we shall still be creditors. For through effort and suffering and on many a stricken field we have found the secret of human power, which is the secret of happiness. Men have guessed at it under many names; but we alone have learnt to know it and to make it at home in our city. And the name we know it by is freedom, for it has taught us that to serve is to be free. Do you wonder why it is that alone among mankind we confer our benefits, not on conditions of self-interest, but in the fearless confidence of freedom?

All this has a familiar ring in these days when freedom and democracy are so loudly proclaimed and yet limited to some only. There is truth in it and a denial of truth. Thucydides knew little of the rest of mankind and his vision was confined to the Mediterranean countries. Proud of the freedom of his famous city, praising this freedom as the secret of happiness and human power, yet he did not realize that others also aspired to this freedom. Athens, lover of freedom, sacked and destroyed Melos and put to death all the grown men there and sold the women and children as slaves. Even while Thucydides was writing of the empire and freedom of Athens, that empire had crumbled away and that freedom was no more.

For it is not possible for long to combine freedom with domination and slavery; one overcomes the other and only a little time divides the pride and glory of empire from its fall. Today, much more than ever before, freedom is indivisible. The splendid eulogy of Pericles for his beloved city was followed soon after by its fall and the occupation of the Acropolis by a Spartan garrison. Yet his words move us still for their love of beauty, wisdom, freedom and courage, not merely in their application to the Athens of his day, but in the larger context of the world:

We are lovers of beauty without extravagance, and lovers of wisdom without unmanliness. Wealth to us is not mere material for vainglory but an opportunity for achievement; and poverty we think it no disgrace to acknowledge but a real degradation to make no effort to overcome…. Let us draw strength, not merely from twice-told arguments—how fair and noble a thing it is to show courage in battle—but from the busy spectacle of our great city’s life as we have it before us day by day, falling in love with her as we see her, and remembering that all this greatness she owes to men with the fighter’s daring, the wise man’s understanding of his duty, and the good man’s self-discipline in its performance—to men who, if they failed in any ordeal, disdained to deprive the city of their services, but sacrificed their lives as the best offerings on her behalf. So they gave their bodies to the commonwealth and received, each for his own memory, praise that will never die, and with it the grandest of all sepulchres, not that in which their mortal bones are laid, but a home in the minds of men, where their glory remains fresh to stir to speech or action as the occasion comes by. For the whole earth is a sepulchre of famous men; and their story is not graven only on stone over their native earth, but lives on far away, without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives. For you now it remains to rival what they have done and, knowing the secret of happiness to be freedom and the secret of freedom a brave heart, not idly to stand aside from the enemy’s onset.

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The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru

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